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In his book, "Western Ways of Being Religious," (Kessler, 1999) the author Gary E. Kessler identifies the theological, philosophical and societal ramifications of the evolution of religion in the West. Christianity, Judaism and Islam can be traced to a single origin but their divergence has been very marked. Kessler sets his thesis very early in the book. He avers that there are two approaches to religion. One is to be immersed in it -- as a practitioner; the other is to study it as an objective observer, looking in from the outside. This work is unique. The author challenges the traditional notions with his own opinions then follows it with the views of an expert on that notion (in the form of a speech or an essay). He avers that a student of religion has to approach the topic with honesty and openness. This often involves imagining the other's point-of-view by putting oneself in the position of another, especially views with which the student disagrees. The scholarly element has to also click in -- in the form of critical analyses. Kessler is aware of the emotional aspects of religion. He cautions that the student has to be sensitive and tolerant to opinions of others. The student also has to approach his subject with caution and a lack of bias. Objectivity engenders a concept called "spiritual regret." Here the student perceives that the object of his study has features that he or she cannot partake of as a practitioner of a different "lesser" religion.
The four experts Lee Yearley (spiritual regret) (pp. 7-14), Rem Edwards (clustering of religions based on similarities in various active and passive philosophies) (pp. 21-24) (Proudfoot, 1985, 263) weigh in providing objective seminal opinions on these points raised by Gary E. Kessler
Recognizing the diversity of religions goes a long way in an objective scholarly pursuit of religion. An imagination is necessary because the best way to understand another religion is to put oneself in the position of the practitioner of that religion. Yearley supports this view with the need to develop a new set of virtues that force us beyond the comfort-zones of religious views that we have while practicing or studying our own religions. This is spiritual regret and it involves recognizing other beliefs no matter how much at variance from out own. Others disagree that manufacturing or evolving virtues is akin to manufacturing evidence to support a spurious claim. Yearley believes that this virtue is paramount for religious diversity (p. 11). It enables us to go beyond treating other religions as heresies or cults. Another defense mechanism is to assume that the other religion is only superficial and all religions are one and the same. All these are defeatist to true diversity. Care has also to be taken, according to Yearley, that when the comfort zone of a person is breached, spiritual regret is inappropriate.
Kessler avers that in order to understand another religion it is necessary to adequately define that religion. He cautions the student, however, that most definitions of religion are inadequate or twisted based on the agenda of the person providing the definition. These factors can be cultural, theological, philosophical and historical. An essential definition is also lacking because it is does not make the definition unique. (p. 18) Careful attention should be paid to the bandying about of the word "sacred," especially when it is broadly defined; and, especially, when the definition does not seem divinely ordained. Being sacred to many might mean different things and is not necessarily religious. Essential definitions are divided into substantive and functional definitions. Ethnocentricity also makes these definitional waters murkier. (p. 19) A western religion would not play well in the orient because it is at odds with that thought from several perspectives. It is also important to identify the differences between spirituality and religion. Rem Edwards has proposed a unique methodology to identify religious thought between religions. This "clustering" technique involves an ordinate axis of all the major religions; while the abscissa contains various characteristics of religions. Matches are given a "P" (present) rank and mismatches are given an "A" (Absent) rank. The closeness of different religions is then scaled based arranged based on the most Ps to the most As. (pp. 22-23) proper study of a religion is paradoxically, incomplete unless it is comprehensive. Every facet has to be taken into account. This holds true, especially for comparative studies of religions, where if comparisons of only a few facets are undertaken, the picture is misleading. William Paden suggests certain perspectives to avoid the pitfalls of the comparative endeavors where these studies might be used to denigrate other religions and consequently harm its practitioners. (p. 30) Paden asks that we study every facet of the religion from an objective viewpoint. The historical view is perhaps the most unbiased. Paden argues that similarities should be identifiable by using analogies and not direct explicit comparisons. Also important, are an objective understanding of the differences between religions.
Wayne Proudfoot argues for comparing religions by stripping them to their cores of all the details which obfuscate true studies. He analyzes this process, which is called reductionism. Proudfoot informs that any attempt at reductionism inevitably removes facets that are important to the religion. Religion and everything related to it often evokes strong emotions. "Reducing" religion of the emotional aspect is counterproductive. Explanatory reductionism on the other hand is perhaps the most even-handed way of studying religion in that it does not discount any specific aspect of it, except the person directly involved. (p. 32-33)
In summary therefore, in order to understand another religion we have to put ourselves in the position of its practitioners, keep an honest and open mind and study that religion (in conjunction with the one we practice) in every facet: spiritual, cultural, historical, philosophical, rational, ethnocentric and theological. Every instinct to "attack" another religion merely because it is different should be ignored, even if it is contrary to ones frame of reference. Special considerations are when a religion reaches cult status, specially, when it violates basic moral and ethical rules that go to the core of humanity rather than religion. Even in these cases a distinction must be made between the teachings of the religion as has been handed down historically vs. The cultural interpretations of its contemporary practitioners.
Historical Development of the Traditions
Each time the Shema Y'israel is recited (p. 39), the Jews speak and listen to God secure in the knowledge that they are the chosen people. Judaism is the World's oldest religion and there are several facets to it. Historically, from the beginning of record-keeping to the present time, Judaism is not one seamless historical construct. On the contrary it went through four periods of distinct changes. Not just different eras, but differences in philosophical and social thought. Judaism began when Abraham established his tribe to Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). This tribe flourished until the Egyptians enslaved them. The Exodus into the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses marked a turning point. This resulted in the creation of Israel and the first Jewish state.
The first conquest of the established Jews took place in 586 B.C.E. By the Babylonians. Jewish customs did not cease throughout these turbulent times. (p. 43) When the Persian, on defeating the Babylonians, restored the Jewish stature, Judaism began to resurge in Israel. After the death and resurrection of Christ, when Christian feeling began to take root, the Roman Empire began to increase its dominance; Jews (along with early Christians) also endured persecution. Circa 70 C.E., the temple of Jerusalem was burned the second time. While the time and events following the first destruction of the Temple was called the age of diversity, this second time is called the age of definition. Each of these eras produced a reawakening and resurgence of Jewish thought. After the temple's second destruction, it was only after 300 years the Israel was returned to the Jews. (p. 44)
The time between 640 to almost modern times is called the age of cogency. This was a period when Judaism flourished. This success was largely a product of being open to changes and evolving with the time. The age of cogency, in one way, also restricted the spread of Judaism. No doubt the Jews by now inhabited various parts of the world. But at the same time Christian and Islamic followers were also flourishing. The last two hundred years up to present time is also called the Second age of diversity (p. 45). During this time Judaism underwent several upheavals -- some of them catastrophic. In earlier times, Jews were banished from the Iberian countries. Later, the pogroms orchestrated by the Tsars blessings in Russia (Gurock, 1997, xv, 486) The unique aspect of the Jewish is their ability to rebound with almost geometric proportions. This concept came to be known as Zionism. It combined a feeling of resignation and making the best of circumstances with whatever they had.…[continue]
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